Wine Depot

Guiding customers through the wines of Spain

Vineyard

By Andrea Infimo | Head Sommelier, MoVida Melbourne

Spanish wines are on the rise. Dramatic improvements in vineyard management and winemaking with the revival of indigenous varieties has seen the quality of Spanish wines catching up with that of other leading wine-making nations. The adventurous spirit of young consumers with their rejuvenated desire to explore new grape varieties and regions has definitely worked in favour of its rapid expansion. Nonetheless, choosing a bottle of Spanish wine for many consumers often means stepping out of their comfort zone.

The easiest way to instruct customers that are new to Spanish wines is by direct comparisons to conventional varieties and benchmark regions. It is a rather simplistic tool and overgeneralising is inevitable. But some people demand easy rules to help them get a better understanding of international wines.

Telling a customer that albariño is a crisp, semi-aromatic white that sits in between pinot grigio and riesling may not be 100% correct but it works. And on a busy Friday night such explanations then allow a sommelier to move on to the next table. That could be to recommend a Rioja Gran Reserva to a customer that enjoys an aged Bordeaux or a Brunello or a bold monastrell from Jumilla for a shiraz fan. However, when time permits, a broad outline of Spanish wine is much more satisfying with a simple geography lesson often the best way to start.

Spain can be split into three main climatic blocks: Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean. Atlantic Spain stretches from the Basque Country in the East to the whole of Galicia to the West. It is also known as ‘Green Spain’ as opposed to the arid countryside found across most of the peninsula and its defining climatic features are regular rainfall and cooler, ocean-influenced weather. This is freshness territory.

Grapes

The reds, made predominantly from Mencía, are fragrant and lighter bodied, especially those that come from the dramatically beautiful slopes of the Ribeira Sacra (right in the heart of Galicia), while they gain density and concentration further inland in Bierzo. The best examples are Burgundian in style while the entry level wines are reminiscent of good Beaujolais with a wild accent. The whites from the coast, be it the lightly effervescent Txakoli from the Basque region or the Rias Baixas signature grape albariño, are bright and zesty, with mouth-watering acidity and a saline edge. Wines from the granitic slopes of Valdeorras and the godello grape are weightier with greater affinity to oak, often pleasing chardonnay drinkers.

The Continental block, which covers the entirety of the Central Meseta plateau, is characterised by a high diurnal temperature range. The warm and sunny days are an assurance for ripeness, while cooler nights and altitude, play an essential role for acid retention. tempranillo here reigns supreme. In Ribera del Duero and Toro, where this grape is better known respectively as Tinto de Toro and Tinto Fino, its smaller berries can produce wines with perhaps more tannins than a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and a fruit concentration only encountered in great Barossa Shiraz. These wines can handle a lot of new oak and normally take years to soften.

Although the most recent trend is to go for less extraction and new wood, power and muscles remain the main attributes of these wines. Located closer to the ‘neck’ of the Iberian peninsula, La Rioja is more influenced by the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean; wines from Mediterranean vintages show plusher fruit and elevated alcohol while Atlantic-influenced vintages are defined by freshness and savouriness.

Barrel

And don’t be fooled by the oak ageing classification. Words like Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva only tells how long the wine has spent in barrel and are not necessarily indicative of quality. More dynamic and quality minded producers, like those who call themselves ‘Rioja and Roll’, have entirely or partially abandoned these traditional terms, focussing more on fruit purity and terroir differences. Whites worth of mention are Rioja’s viura Blends, traditionally made in an oaked and oxidative style, plus the more popular verdejo from Rueda (the Spaniard’s favourite) which, with its aromas of tropical fruit and grass, is not too dissimilar from sauvignon blanc.

The mild winter and hot summers of the Mediterranean coast are home to varieties that love the heat: garnacha (grenache) and monastrell (aka mourvedre or mataro). The former is rather ubiquitous; the sub-mountainous slopes of Aragon offer wines of exceptional value. However, garnacha reaches its climax on the slatey slopes of Priorat, south-west of Barcelona where it’s often blended with carignan. Its smoky, balsamic and structured wines, with heady scents of garrigue and dark berries, go head to head with world class wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Hence they’re never cheap! Monastrell makes full bodied, meaty and often rustic reds in Valencia, Alicante and a bit further inland in Jumilla.

Still whites are definitely a minority here but a mention of sparkling and fortified wines is essential. Cava, the Spanish fizz, can theoretically be made all over the country, but 90 % of the output comes from the hills of Penedés, just North of Barcelona. This region that is currently reinventing itself, with dozens of producers focussing on sustainable viticulture and quality. Made with the champenoise method, the best examples can have the complexity of a great Champagne, except with riper fruit and a mild earthy quality imparted by Xarel-lo, one of the varieties allowed in the blend.